Mingalabar,

Back in October, I wrote a blog post about my 2016 trip to Thailand and Myanmar. At the time I was considering the following 2 options for the Myanmar leg of the trip:

  • Book to go on a tour
  • Take a few risks and travel solo

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At the time I decided to keep my options open, continue learning about Myanmar and the answer would come to me along the way.

Advice from a resident

Since then I have chatted online with a NZ librarian, currently living and working in Myanmar, to seek her advice (I like to make informed decisions). Given the limited time I have (around 2 weeks), the difficulties of traveling in a country like Myanmar without a well established travel infrastructure, and the fact that I’m travelling in the low season (it will be raining A LOT), she suggested that joining a tour would be easiest. I agreed that a tour was probably the most sensible option and proceeded to research tour companies that run tours in Myanmar. An obvious choice would be Intrepid, however they don’t run tours in August, probably because of the high chances of severe flooding which can make land travel difficult if not impossible. I came across a few ‘luxury’ options, with prices that were about 3 times my budget and offered me next to no flexibility to add on destinations like Kekku. I started to lose hope in finding the perfect tour.

Listening to my gut feeling

Even while looking for a tour, there was always a niggle, a resistance to spending my 14 or so days, inside an air conditioned coach with a dozen or more fellow tourists, my day planned from breakfast until dinner, seeing ‘the sights’ but not ‘the real country’. People are visiting Myanmar more and more now but by no means in the same way they are visiting countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. It is one of a small number of countries that are still relatively undiscovered. And I want to discover it – warts and all, not a sanitised version where I am driven from photo opportunity to photo opportunity and not experiencing the serendipity you enjoy if you travel independently. I am not travelling on a large budget but I’d like the benefit of my money to go to the Burmese people, not to an international travel company.

Read and research

As a librarian/researcher/project manager, I have been turning to various information sources to get more expert advice. These are some of the words of wisdom from the 12th Edition of Lonely Planet’s Myanmar (Burma) travel guide:

So – there is a promise of National Geographic type sights to see, in some parts where traditional life continues as it has for hundreds of years. However, there will also be challenges.

Travel risks and potential difficulties

My preferred method of travel, train, isn’t recommended – it’s old, slow, unreliable and if the travelogue by Chris Tarrant is anything to go by, very uncomfortable.

While most people would probably be put off by the short snippet of the bumpy train experience shown here, there is a little voice in me that I can’t quieten, saying “I want to go on that train”. A Burmese local described train travel to Lonely Planet as “not as bad as some people say, not as good as you hope.” That is enough to want me to find out for myself.

August promises plenty of moisture – humidity and downpours – and if there is flooding the already unreliable train travel could be delayed even more – a 12 hour train trip can become a 40 hour one.

The toilets will take me outside of my comfort zone – the only squat toilets I’ve experienced were in rural Russia. I’d better start practicing squats now. I’ve held a snakes a couple of times – a large python at an Australian wildlife park and a yellow tree python in Outback Australia. All the same, I’m not keen on encountering one outside of a controlled environment thank you very much.

Stomach upsets are quite likely to occur and I’ll need most, if not all, of these vaccinations before I leave the safety of New Zealand: diphtheria, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and typhoid.

But still, I crave a deeper experience that a tour

These quotes explain my mindset better than I can:

So, the verdict?

I’m not “definitely” doing this trip “entirely” independently, but that’s definitely the way I’m leaning. I’m continuing to read and research – weighing up pros and cons, assessing risk as best I can and putting in place whatever strategies I can to mitigate things going wrong.

I have have almost always traveled by tour – Contiki (Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Outback Australia), Dragoman (Zimbabwe, Botswana Namibia and Zambia) and Cosmos (England, Scotland and Wales) plus a couple of smaller companies, including Tir Na Nog through Ireland. I’ve travelled solo, or with friends, throughout New Zealand, Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Coffs Harbour, Surfers Paradise, Brisbane to Cairns, Hobart) Lisbon and surrounds of Portugal, Prague and surrounds in the Czech Republic, the UK, USA and  Canada. I have been to countries with alphabets that don’t resemble ours – Russia and Greece. That is an extra challenge when travelling but it’s not insurmountable.

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Mitigating risk

There are things I can do to reduce risk in Myanmar:

  • buy and wear a longyi and wear tops with sleeves
  • don’t go out alone after dark
  • avoid land borders
  • register my travel intentions with Safe Travel
  • ensure my travel insurance covers Myanmar and includes repatriation in case of illness, accident or other emergency
  • learn the culture and some of the language before I go, including numerals so that I understand prices, platform numbers, etc.

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There is always going to be a certain amount of risk – whether traveling to Mandalay or to downtown Auckland. I’m still working though how I want to travel and what level of risk I’m prepared to take in order to gain the travel adventure I’m seeking.

My itinerary is a work in progress

My next post will detail some of the places and events in Myanmar I am adding to my “wishlist” – like the festival mentioned in the August clip above “Taungbyone Nat Pwe” and the photogenic, off-the-beaten track stupas at Kekku.

I will also showcase some of the websites and apps I’m using to plan my trip. Books too of course.

Thwa dau me (goodbye)

Choosing travel over tourism, adventure over comfort